Snippets from an Open Mic

by Sam Buntz

Dreadlocked white boys narrate Rastafarian basics, while a single, tinny chord continually issues from a guitar. It whines an arrhythmic protest against the proceedings as a whole.

The bar is full of ethnically ambiguous dudes wearing hip-hop-style, flat-brimmed baseball caps with the stickers still on, nursing Malibu Rum and cokes, draped in extra, extra large black t-shirts, some bearing illegible yet menacing graffiti-stylized slogans. It’s a kind of Tiki Bar of the Damned.

This one kid could play the piano O.K. but his lyrics were terrible: “Romance is ephemeral! Romance is eph-eph-ephemeral!” (not a stutter, just the way the song went). If he had been bad at both playing piano and writing lyrics, it wouldn’t have mattered much—in pitch dark, you can’t really get too disturbed by what’s in front of you. But a little light brings it home.

Monday drunks examine little, pink umbrellas, half-conscious of baseball on the TV (the Sox aren’t doing too hot). Monday drunks cackle and guffaw, alternately, hanging with their boys. You gotta hang with your boys.

This next guy can’t play the guitar and he can’t sing—and now it’s really 3 A.M. in the soul. Pitch black! He’s howling, “Maaaaaaadison! I loved you, Maaaaaaaadison!” Of course that’s the girl’s name! He plays but one chord, the same high-pitched, non-chord as the white Rastas. Somehow he’s managed to put a capo on the guitar for this song—it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the single chord he’s playing, a misaligned barre chord of sorts.

Dreams pulse behind the broad, flat curtain of nothingness. Some tender shoot sticks up through all the corniness, the soil of thick oblivion. We see the failure to align, the wish which is just a wish and not a discipline—there is only will and desire in these quarters, but no contemplation, none of the stillness from which an actual piece of art can emerge. You know—like Keats’ Greek vase or whatever.

The emcee fiddles with dials on the amp as the performers strum—you hear only bass notes, now only treble.

The emcee is a small-time operator who never really quite managed to profit from his operation (whatever it may have been). His eyes have that perpetually wet look, a weird indication of despair, like there are always tears hanging inside them. They’re not going to fall and probably wouldn’t be able to. A chorus of elves peer out from under the floorboards and cackle at him. He will eventually get the DTs.

As I take the stage, someone points to his own girlfriend and yells, “See if you can get her panties wet, bro!” I maintain a decorous silence, and look at him the way Confucius might have in the same situation.

Almost everyone leaves the room, and I play to about four people.


Time’s Slaves

by Sam Buntz

The major problem with ISIS—which includes its great host of smaller abnormalities—is that it represents a “time-bound philosophy” (as Aldous Huxley would’ve put it). It does not wish to create a separate peace in the present world: it wishes to torture the world until it conforms to an idealized future vision. Unlike some religious and political movements, but like many others, ISIS seeks goals that can only be realized in some blessed epoch that is yet-to-come. A yogi on retreat in the Himalayas can search for enlightenment in the moment, or whenever he or she has the opportunity: the specific historical time period attending this attempt is almost irrelevant. But, like The Inquisition, Nazism, and Bolshevism, ISIS’s goals are attached to time. As Huxley wrote, “From the records of history it seems to be abundantly clear that most of the religions and philosophies which take time too seriously are correlated with political theories that inculcate and justify the use of large-scale violence. The only exceptions are those simple Epicurean faiths, in which the reaction to an all too real time is ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ This is not a very noble, nor even a very realistic kind of morality. But it seems to make a good deal more sense than the revolutionary ethic: ‘Die (and kill), for tomorrow someone else will eat, drink, and be merry.”

Huxley is undoubtedly correct: this ethic is not very inspiring. The promise of a glorious future without carved statues, alcohol, or publicly visible women does not strike many of us as being particularly attractive. (You have to be tuned to a certain wavelength, one would suppose.) But I don’t think that what really motivates ISIS’s fighters—and particularly, the foreign fighters, the Waffen-ISIS—is the promise of a glorious Islamic utopia. Consciously, that’s what most of them apparently think and say they’re fighting for, and it is a subject over which they’re willing to shed copious tears (even on camera). But, dealing with the difficult realities of human psychology and brain chemistry, I would imagine that they’re actually fighting and killing for the great pleasures of… fighting and killing. The same pathology was at work with Bolshevism: the Bolsheviks said they were making war against their own population so that other people in the (possibly quite distant) future could have an ideal existence, but in reality, the passion for destruction so obviously outweighed the passion for creation. Paraphrasing 1984, the real goal of Bolshevik Communism was to experience the joy of stomping eternally on a human face, over and over and over again. The same thing is so obviously true for ISIS.

Perhaps the higher-ups in ISIS really do have rather more Utopian schemes and dreams in mind, beyond their own version of Prohibition and the murder of idolaters and infidels—though I doubt it.  Having read, for college courses, certain central texts of political Islamism—like Sayyid Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam—I can say that they’re simply none too brilliant, let alone inspiring. Qutb, the intellectual figurehead of modern Islamism, lived in the United States for an extended period of time, and didn’t seem to understand anything that was happening around him: his written reflections on the U.S.A. of the late 1940s are wholly bizarre, and include a rant about the seductive evils of the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the unbalanced claim that there was joyful confusion on the streets of Washington D.C. in 1949, as the American people celebrated the death of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Hasan al-Banna (not that it needs to be noted, but this didn’t actually happen; Qutb was in a D.C. hospital getting his tonsils removed at the time, and just assumed that Americans were rejoicing, not suspecting that the average American was not particularly engaged with internal Egyptian politics at that time). Clearly, Qutb was preaching to a very specific choir… At any rate, my point is that these guys and their leaders don’t have the same intellectual conception of reality as revolutionaries like Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky (adherents of a different time-based philosophy). They might be skilled tacticians in the field of fight, but their philosophy is painfully simple-minded and brutal (obviously). While their goals are technically historical, time-based-goals, like those of the Marxists or the Nazis, they’re also kind of a joke: the real point is the pleasure of destruction, as though one were to become so attached to time as to perform its annihilating work for it.

Our world overflows with time-bound philosophies—ISIS is just the most vicious example. But in the Islamic world, no less than in the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu worlds, we see the continued existence of people—like the Sufis—who nobly refuse to give a damn about such ferociously temporal concerns. People who turn their attention to eternal realities suddenly find more reasons to create than to destroy: it would be fair to say that all art (including great Islamic art) grows out of this spiritual orientation, and that all the social improvements we’ve made as human beings were due to a direct engagement with current realities, a passion for the Now, rather than to zealous striving for heaven-on-earth.

“Boston Common”


by Sam Buntz


everybody’s pants are wrinkled

a toddler puts his hand against a tree for support

meanwhile, a juggler unleashes a geyser of primary colors

a man with thin ankles, grey socks, and four blonde children
between the ages of 5 and 13

the well-dressed immigrant couples

a black teenager with a cast on his right arm, socks and sandals

the sun-and-snow-pinched faces of siberians

female keyboard player in an abbey road t-shirt—the athleticism of her arms—

the drummer in a jamaican rastafari hat—all asian (except for the flautist)

runic tattoos garland neck-lines

white lanky sugar daddy with young blonde girlfriend
her pert buttocks somehow nearly independent of one another as they move

the pathways are disheveled with miracle

handbags awkwardly caressed

the bass player arrives in a big bootsy collins hat

pale soles held loosely to flip-flop foam

little kids flap around enthusiastically to the ascent of bass and drum

just one green leaf comes my way

the directionless gazes lost in a million pairs of sunglasses

tired cyclists and skateboarders stop on the too weedy hillside

someone with a back cramp slows her step

a double-decker stroller with babies sleeping—
content, small loaves of ham

a little boy screams at an eager, fountain-drenched terrier

the ease with which women wear jeans that tight—their deft, even modes of conversation

not too many big American guts—but there’s one

she fakes a drink and interrogates the taste with raised eyebrows

girth that concentrates above the waist and on the mons pubis
split by a belt’s protest

the juggler teaches a kid who sends red and yellow flashes scattering

the music thunders up – jugular questions

asian girls in floral-print dresses – smooth ideals, invincible plaster-casts

a mother’s tightly approving smile

the long socks, the flowing nehru jackets and trousers,

tubular trunks, salmon colored shorts, pink and grey

the terrier’s tail still wagging, his amiable ratty-ness, energy unabated

black pony tails, extravagant black sideburns, black shirts scrawled in sumerian code, black laptop bag, black shoes, black glasses, blue eyes

a thin east indian in a cowboy hat

people walk over boston common in flip-flops, shower shoes

middle-aged man with his family—wife puts a pink flower in his ear—

he grins, feeling stupid, and embraces it, leaves it in

a flimsy neon-pink see-thru that could, on its own, on a rack,
stop and direct traffic

intervals in the crowd

slick black hair, greek letters, and a rosary

a foot cast and a small birthmark

isolated in an ipod, a smartphone, and a tall iced green tea

the disparities between women and the men they’re with—
better looking women by far

eating an ice cream sandwich, she regards me